by Amy L. Hull
Written (extremely late!) for akamarykate in the help_haiti challenge. Many thanks to Merlin Missy (Girl Scout and pacing expert) and b1uemorpho (public transport expert and missing word finder) for their proofreading, input, and suggestions.
"Come on, come on," Gary glanced at his watch, then at the paper next to it in his hand where he gripped the bus pole. "Listen, could you go a little faster?" he asked the driver.
"Gotta keep to my route," the man muttered.
"What, do CTA and Pace drivers go to the same school?" He looked out the front, then at his watch again.
"Actually, we do. We cooperate with each other. Would you just sit down, mister? You're making the passengers nervous."
"I really don't think any of them even see me." Gary gestured to the elderly man sleeping against the window and the teenage couple making out in the back.
"All right, then you're making me nervous." The bus jerked to a stop. "Ridgeland!"
"No one even got on!"
"Hey! Don't be ringing that bell unless you're getting off!"
"Sorry," came an unapologetic voice. "It musta got caught on us."
"Can't you just speed up?"
"I told you. I gotta maintain my route. Last week that channel two lady does some big exposé-" he took his hands off the wheel to make air quotes, "-and the bosses are complaining if we get too far ahead or too far behind. Say the elderly people, young mothers, disabled people, they count on us."
Gary leaned toward the driver. "I could walk faster than this."
"Behind the yellow line!"
Gary stepped back, scowling.
"You think you can go faster in this heat, next stop, you be my guest," he replied.
Gary made a face at the driver, biting back his useless retort and grudgingly sitting down. As the bus slowed and stopped again and again, he glanced at the headline again with its gruesome picture, Woman hit, dragged by car, DOA. Every time he glanced at the headline, his leg bounced faster.
"Oak Park," the driver called. As the door opened, Gary heard the soft tooting of a small car's horn.
Two women got on, hauling and folding strollers, trailed by what looked like half a dozen children.
The younger women dug in diaper bags for money as the bus lurched into motion with the family still standing on the stairs. The oldest boy, who Gary guessed couldn't have been over six, stowed the strollers and reached for the heavier of the babies. The baby held out its arms, flinging itself from the older woman-a grandmother, perhaps-so that the boy had to grab the child almost mid-air, and it giggled.
The older woman sat down abruptly as the bus hit a pothole. She gestured for the children to join her, but the toddler boy had made it to the top of the stairs-the driver wasn't yelling at them about the yellow line-and was grinning, reaching up over his head to point to the Mexican flag tattooed on the driver's forearm. The driver looked past him to where a girl of matching size with two pink-ribboned pigtails on her head was peeking from behind her mother's legs as the woman fed coins into the fare box.
"Hola, chiquita. Que bonito vestido." the driver said. The girl smiled and waved.
Gary wished he would just drive, but kept himself from saying so.
The woman ushered the children down the aisle. A girl just smaller than the boy sat by the grandmother, settling bags beside them. The mother settled herself and the toddlers, who scrambled up beside her. At the grandmother's urging, the girl stepped across the aisle, holding a pole, and gave each of the toddlers a small bag of Sabritas.
Two more stops and Gary stood back up "Are you sure you can't speed up?"
"You know, I gotta say, I'm actually kinda enjoying the 'keep to your route' orders just watching you get so wound up."
Gary barely avoided snarling. It felt like the bus spent more time stopping than moving. And that car horn sounded every time the bus slowed. Another several stops later, he muttered, "You guys must be getting a big kick out of taking this long to get anywhere."
But bus driver just said, Next stop, Harlem."
"Finally," Gary breathed, glancing again at the paper. The horn sounded again, but this time sounded closer. Gary peered out the window and saw a Honda moving past the bus. He smiled a goodbye at the women and children and moved forward as the bus slowed.
"Behind the line, mister! Geez! What could possibly be so important?"
"If only you knew," Gary said, jumping the stairs as soon as the door opened. Across Harlem and south, he could see flashing lights. He was too late.
He bolted across the streets, around and among cars. There was surprisingly little commotion, and traffic seemed to be moving through the smoothly. It seemed he was causing the only congestion. As he leapt onto the median of Harlem, now on the south side, he saw a gurney being loaded into an ambulance. A dark haired woman with a neck brace and a bandaged arm waved before she disappeared behind the doors.
That was the woman. Gary opened the paper and saw her waving again, no longer lying in the street in a puddle of blood by a damaged Honda. He looked up. The honking Honda was there, but not damaged, just pulled to the side, and an officer was taking notes from a distraught older man.
He smacked the paper. "What was that all about then?" Scanning down the page he saw another headline. Two youths dead in gang shooting behind Riverside Mall. The light was with him and he crossed the street and rushed to the officer.
"Sir, I hate to interrupt you, but, well, I just got off that bus," he turned to point, but the bus had continued on its route for once. "I just got off the Pace bus to the Zoo, I mean, the mall, and there were two teenage boys talking about a gang fight going down."
"Gangs?" the older man took a step back, adjusting his glasses and smoothing his hair with an unsteady hand.
The officer lifted his chin then beckoned and a uniformed woman walked their way. He turned back to the first man. "Mr. Markham, it's all right. We're nearly done here and you'll be free to go. Sir," the officer turned to Gary, "could you talk to my partner?"
Gary turned to the officer who joined them.
"Why don't you just come over this way?" she said, gesturing with one hand near his elbow.
"Yes, ma'am. Well, you see, I was just on the Pace bus on the way to the Zoo, and there were teenage boys and they talked about a gang fight."
"What did they say exactly, sir?" She wrote in a small notebook, and the movement made her sidearm jiggle on her belt.
"Ah, well, I don't remember their exact words, but they mentioned the Penneys, and I think they mentioned shooting, and, well, I thought I should get off that bus and let you know. And I saw your lights, so I got off here." Gary pointed to the squad car and nodded.
The officer frowned slightly, her large eyes narrowing. Police always seemed to look at him with suspicion, which he found odd. All his life, until the paper, everyone had said he was very trustworthy.
"Is there anything else you can remember, sir?"
Gary shook his head. "No, ma'am. I am sorry about that."
Still frowning at him, the woman spoke into her radio. "Tanner to Dispatch. Tanner to Dispatch." The radio squawked. "I have a citizen reporting possible gang activity going down behind the Riverside Park Mall Penneys. Please dispatch a squad. We are still tied up with the Harlem MVA. Suspects are teenage males. Possible firearm involvement. Approach with caution."
Her voice faded as he began the run through parking lots and down side streets. He could make it. He pounded along hot pavement and the paper shifted in his rear pocket. He'd never been in this good of shape from working out before the paper, never run so much in his life, even doing football practice. He sprinted past fast food joints, past stand-alone stores, mini-strip malls, grocery stores, railroad track, and down a bit of street till he could see the Penneys. The parking lot was a sea of colors, but nothing looked out of the ordinary, not even the spots he could see behind his eyes.
Nothing except an orange-striped cat, staring at him with its typical expression that said, "You are an idiot." Gary glared at it, but ran toward the shouting he could suddenly hear.
"Stop it!" he shouted.
All six teenagers turned on him, plus two more boys he thought might be pre-teens but who had crossed their arms, frowning to look tough. They all looked young.
"Man, what you think you doing here?" The tallest boy, a hint of mustache fuzz on his upper lip and a sideways baseball cap in a color matching his shoes, stepped forward. He moved his arm so the handgun he wielded was visible.
"Look, guys, the police are on their way." Gary could hear his voice shake. He never did get used to this. "I heard them, at that accident at Cermak."
"What, you called them?" a kid with a ponytail challenged, brandishing his own gun on the side where his pants leg was rolled up to just under the knee.
"No. No!" Gary held up both hands. "Look, I don't want any trouble. It's just that, well, I saw the police, and I heard you guys fighting, and I didn't think you'd want any trouble, either."
The boys laughed.
The first boy turned to a kid next to him who was wearing a huge crucifix with other gold chains. "That's funny, isn't it, Hector? He didn't think we'd want trouble. Real funny."
Gary tried to laugh with them.
"What you think we're out here for? A picnic? You think we bring our guns out here not for trouble? What kind of mo-ron is this sucker, you guys think?"
"I don't know, dude," a couple of the others said.
"Look here, man," the ponytailed kid said, stepping into Gary's personal space and gesturing with the gun, "We got business, just 'tween us. I strongly suggest you get yourself gone somewhere else if you don't wanna become part of our business. Capice?"
"You tell him, Matt," another kid with a rolled-up pant leg said.
His volume dropped and he leaned toward the kid, "I told you to call me Vito!" Turning back to Gary, he said, "So, are you going to get out of here, or am I going to make you part of our business?"
"Hey! I may be a moron, but I am right about the police! Now, you may have business, but if you want to get to do your business, you're going to have to do it somewhere else!" Gary panted a bit with the adrenaline. "Or, you know, you could just go home. I mean," he looked back and forth between the obvious leaders, "you both have little brothers and sisters. How would you feel," he pointed to baseball-hat-kid, "if you had to tell your mom that your little brother got killed while he was out with you?" He looked pointedly at the younger kids, one of whom sidled nearer. "Or if you got hurt? And he was there and saw it? How would he feel then?"
He turned to the kid with the ponytail. Matt...Vito...whatever. "And what about you? Do you want your dad to have to tell your grandmother and your little sister how you died? Or that you killed someone? Is that the prayer you want her to say for you at her confirmation?"
The kid looked away.
Hector pointed, "Look, man, the cops are coming."
The kids scattered, shouting threats over their shoulders as they ran. Gary stepped through the trees in the median and looked back to see the squad stop and an officer picking up a discarded handgun before he continued on to the street and bus stop. The story was gone, replaced by a report of two handguns found in the parking lot of Riverside Mall after an anonymous tip.
The bus slowed and he stepped on, pulling out his card, when he heard, "Not you again."
He looked up and saw the tattoo on the man's arm. "What did you do, just stop and take in the sights?"
"I gotta drive all the way around the mall." He gestured back to the nearly-full bus.
The teenagers who'd been making out were gone, but the sleeping elderly man and the family with children were still there. The toddlers were now seated with the older children, and the larger baby was slumped asleep over the shoulder of the boy. A man with scraggly light brown hair hanging in his face sat in the front seat with a car bumper across his lap.
Gary glared at the man as he squeezed through the narrow gap left by the bumper. Then he smiled and nodded to the women and grabbed for the bar as the bus lurched forward. He scowled at the driver, and could see him smirking in the mirror.
The bus emptied slowly. At one stop, a guy got on with a box, then got off and back on four more times with more boxes before the bus moved forward as he paid. At the next stop, he got off, repeating the box-by-box procedure. By the time they reached Brookfield Zoo, only half the passengers remained. The family with the children stood to get out and Gary reached for the strollers. "I've got these. You take care of the bambinos."
The oldest boy's eyes narrowed at Gary, but he shrugged and got off the bus, smiling as Gary stumbled a bit down the stairs with the awkward load.
Red-faced zoo patrons were trudging up the bus stairs. Gary glanced over his shoulder at the driver and called, "I'll be right back."
He stepped onto the pavement and fumbled at trying to set up a stroller. The mother had tied a brightly-striped scarf around her, fixing the baby tightly against her. The girl, who looked no more than four, looked up at Gary with huge eyes and took the stroller out of his hands. She flicked something and made some jerking movement and it magically transformed into two seats on wheels. She looked back at Gary and he handed her the other stroller, which she similarly flipped open, then piled with their bags.
"Well, uh. Good job. I've gotta go, though." The little girl was already herding the toddlers-twins apparently-into the double stroller and paid him no heed. He turned to see the bus pulling away. "Hey! Hey, I was..." When he turned back, the family was disappearing through the gates, with the two older children pushing the strollers.
He opened the paper and saw that the headlines had changed yet again. Lighthouse field trip turns tragic when child falls in dolphin tank, it read, and under it was a picture of Marissa crying.
Gary ran to the gate.
"Hey, mister! You've got to pay!"
He turned to the voice. A teenage girl with a bright smile and "Docent" in large letters across her badge pointed to the ticket sign. A cheerful giraffe announced, "Children get in free today!" on a sign by the adult prices.
Gary dragged a twenty out of his wallet and tossed it to the girl. "Keep the change as a donation." He ran to the Visitor Information kiosk, grabbed a map and quickly asked the blue-haired lady and her cardigan-wearing partner, also wearing "Docent" badges, where the dolphin show was. They pointed and began telling him about the shows and other marine attractions, but he was running before he heard another word.
He barely saw the fountain as he turned, raced past the big cats and skidded to a stop in front of the marine arena. A smiling dolphin was wrapped around a sign that read, "Next show at 2:30," with its tail pointing toward "Ticket Sales." Gary dashed around the corner only to pull himself up short as he saw a white cane. His eyes tracked up. The woman was thin, in shape, African American, and wearing a Lighthouse for the Blind t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a lighthouse next to quarter-circle bands in yellow, orange, and dark blue.
She turned toward his voice. "Gary! What are you doing here?"
"I'm doing, well..." He glared at the cashier then leaned closer to Marissa. "It's...important. You know. Important."
"All right. Let me finish up here." She turned back to the window. "Our reservations are set then? Sixteen children and six adults for the 2:30 show? With audio description?"
"Then for the after-show with the trainers and animals, we just stay put until the arena clears and they'll come find us?"
"Yes, ma'am." Marissa held out a hand and the cashier placed a paper in it with "Reserved" printed across the top and a bunch of other text.
Gary leaned past Marissa to peer into the window. "Could I buy a ticket for the 2:30 show?" He quickly made his transaction then bustled his friend to a bench under some trees just across the walking path.
"Gary, I can't be long. I'm supposed to meet the group at the Hamill Family Zoo in just five minutes for our program there."
Gary put her hand on the bench, pulling on her arm to get her to sit. "Marissa," he whispered, "you're in the paper. You weren't earlier, but you are now. It says there's an accident, with the dolphins, that one of the kids falls in and is severely injured." He pulled out the paper. "It says she's eight. A Tahirih Kolar-"
"Tahirih? Oh, no!"
"So you see why I have to come with you and keep an eye on things."
"Of course. But, Gary, we've got to go before the group misses me." She took Gary's elbow and urged him to his feet, sweeping the sidewalk ahead of her with her cane.
"Gary, it's a zoo. Riley's a dog. And even guide dogs don't necessarily do well at the zoo...or the animals with them."
"Oh. That makes sense, I guess."
"Remember that grant I told you about?"
"Assume I don't, and tell me about it."
"It involves the Brookfield education department, Lighthouse, and several area Girl Scout troops. They worked together to arrange a special program for a bunch of kids from Lighthouse. Wait till you see what they've got for us at the Hamill...and they're doing a special after-program with the dolphins. Tahirih is the most excited, but I think the other kids are thrilled too."
"That's great, Marissa. But...the paper says...couldn't you, like, reschedule?"
"Gary! You have no idea how much work has gone into-"
"But she's going to die!"
"Then I guess you'll have to stop it." Marissa's voice was, as usual, perfectly calm. That trust made Gary nervous. "Gary, keep moving. You can't keep stopping."
"Fine." He looked around. "Uh, where is the Hamill Family place?"
"Which entrance did you come in?"
"Umm...by the lions? No. They're right here on our right." He looked around. "I know! I came past that fountain first."
"So...you don't know?"
"Ah...no. Apparently not."
"Well, the fountain is up ahead. It's nearly in the middle of the zoo. If we turn left, the Hamill Family Zoo is on our left, halfway to the entrance."
"Oh, wait! This is how I came in!" He quickened his pace.
Marissa laughed. "Gary, you're impossible."
They turned up the path and yet another smiling docent called, "Hey, Ms. Clark! The kids all get settled in fine and the program has started."
Marissa smiled. "Thank you. Should we just join them?"
There was a pause.
"Oh. This is one of our volunteers, Gary Hobson. He was able to make it at the last minute."
"Oh! Okay, then. You're all set to go, then. The entrance is just up the path to your left and the program is in the first activity area."
Gary waved as Marissa tugged him toward the door.
Inside, a group of kids were stretching nylon stockings over a light wire circle. Between a pair of kids wearing white t-shirts with the Lighthouse logo emblazoned on the front was a girl in a patch-covered green vest guiding them. They inserted an inflated plastic bag, stretched another stocking over the wire to hold it in place, then cut the stocking into trailing ribbons.
"Marissa! Look at that. They're making jellyfish!"
Marissa's light laughter rang in his ear. "Yeah. That's one of the activities. We can't exactly stick a hand into a tank of jellyfish to feel what they feel like." She stepped away, touching the table with her cane and kneeling beside a child. Soon the little boy was guiding Marissa's hands to the parts of his facsimile of the animal.
"And, Ms. Clark, they sting if you touch them. That's how they stun their prey and draw it into their stomach, here. Some jellyfish can even kill people! And these tentacles hang down," He stroked the dangling nylon ribbons and placed Marissa's hand on them, "and they're really delicate."
Gary leaned against the wall, watching Marissa ooh and ah at one child after another who called her over to inspect their creations. "And this is its hood..." "They don't even have intestines!" "They have so little color that even sighted people have to look hard to see them!"
A woman with rows of braids tied up in a ponytail stepped forward and said, "Is everyone ready for the next activity?"
There was a chorus of "Yeah!" from all the kids.
"All right. Make sure that you've got your names on your jellyfish and as soon as we get this activity area cleaned up, we'll move on to the amphibians."
"Frogs and salamanders are amphibians!"
"You're right, Sharrelle," Marissa said. "Can you make sure your area is clean?"
The woman with the ponytail was next to Gary. "Sir?"
"You are with this group, right?"
"Yes, I am," he said, slightly affronted at her suspicion
"Could you follow up and make sure everyone puts their jellyfish in this bag?"
"All right, children. Please give your jellyfish to Mr...?"
"Hobson," Gary offered at her pointed look.
"To Mr. Hobson. He's holding a bag. We're going to head out the door I'm standing in and walk to the left and then to the right to the room in the opposite corner."
Chairs clattered and there was the noisy bustle of children and feet and directions being given.
As each child passed, holding out their pantyhose jellyfish, he scooped it into the bag so the far side of the bag touched their wrists.
"Thank you. Got it. Very nice. Great job." When the last child was through the door, he followed them. Outside the next activity room, he made sure no one was watching and pulled the paper from his back pocket. No change. "I've gotta figure out which kid is which."
Inside the room, there were squeaks and cheeps and peeps and all kinds of noises. The Brookfield lady was pointing out plastic boxes to the various groups of Girl Scouts. "The girls helping today are representatives from several local Girl Scout troops. Maria, would you explain, please?"
"My name is Maria, and I'm with Junior Troop 1996-the same as this year!" She giggled, then cleared her throat and looked at the notecard she'd pulled from a pocket. "As part of our Bronze Award, each of the troops represented here went out to various wetland areas and caught these local specimens of frogs and toads. We have twelve individual frogs and toads, with representatives of five of the eleven species native to this region." She sat down and there was a long pause. The girls looked at each other until Maria pointed at three of the girls. "Go ahead."
They exchanged a glance, then stood. Two reached into the plastic container nearest them and started placing creatures into the children's hands. The third girl pulled out a notecard and began reading. She sounded stilted, but spoke clearly. "My name is Mikayla. And I am in Junior Troop 205. This is the American Toad, Bufo americanus. You can feel the eyes set up above the nose. Behind the eyes on its back you can feel bumps. It is a mottled brown-green and off-white-"
"It peed on me!"
There was a chorus of laughter.
"They did that when we caught them, too," Mikayla said. "They do that when they're scared, but now you can hold them."
"But I dropped it!"
"Oh, Jeffrey," Marissa said.
"It jumped across my foot!"
"Gary! Please catch the frog!"
"It's an American Toad," Mikayla told him seriously.
Gary glared at Marissa and the girl, then got down on his knees and followed the shrieks."
"Here, froggy, froggy."
"Mr. Hobson, it's a toad!"
He came up from under the table next to the girl who had just corrected him. "I caught the toad. Here."
The girl held out her hands and he placed it in one, then guided the other hand to cover it. "Gentle," he said, smiling despite himself at the glee on the girl's face.
"Oh, it's amazing! Feel how soft it is on its belly!"
"You like fro-toads, do you?"
"Oh, yes. I want to be a veterinarian when I grow up. My very favorite are the dolphins, and I really want to be a dolphin vet!"
"Are you Tahirih?"
She frowned. "How did you know?"
"Well, uh, Ms. Clark, she told me you were the most excited of everyone for the dolphin show."
Tahirih beamed. "Oh, yes! But the toads are neat too!"
The Brookfield lady called out, "Has everyone gotten a chance to see the American Toad? With the four individuals, it should have gone pretty quickly."
"Frank was hogging his!"
"And I'm not going to hold something that might pee on me!"
"All right, then, has everyone who wants to gotten a chance to hold or see or touch one?"
A chorus of yeses rang out, and the Troop 205 girls collected the toads and gently set them back in the plastic habitat. Another three girls stood.
"My name is Kayla and I am in Junior Troop 1228. This is a Blanchard's Cricket Frog, Acris crepitans. Be very careful as you hold it. It's very small-only an inch-it likes to jump and it's really fast. It is mostly brown with some green markings between its eyes and on its back. You can feel that it's much skinnier than the American Toad."
The kids cupped their hands and one girl squealed. "Great," Gary thought, "more frog-chasing." But the girl was grinning broadly.
"I can feel it jumping up against my hand! It's going thud-thud-thud!"
The boy next to her set a hand on top of hers and giggled. "I can feel it too!"
The kids passed the Cricket Frog around and Gary only had to dive to collect one once. At least that one stayed on the table. He found he couldn't stop smiling at the pure joy on the kids' faces, and he wondered what it would be like not to be able to go to the zoo and appreciate it with the animals far away and not touchable, rarely making sounds. Still, he checked his watch, and looked at the paper. In 45 minutes, Tahirih was still dead, and he was just standing here, shifting from one foot to another. Finally these frogs were collected and another group of girls stood.
"My name is Fanny and I am also in Junior Troop 1228. This one is another little one. This frog is the Spring Peeper, Hyla crucifer, and it's only an inch long. It's tan with a brown X. You can draw the X from the eye to the opposite back leg."
These were passed around to more oohs and ahs. The Girl Scouts traced the X on the frog with the Lighthouse kids' index fingers.
The squeal as one frog escaped was followed by a triumphant whoop as another child from Lighthouse felt it bounce of her hand and moved quickly enough to catch it. She raised it to near her face and Gary was afraid she was going to lick it. He leaned forward then held back when she began to talk.
"You should see!" the girl called. "Its eyes...they blink funny. And the eyes stick up above its head! You can feel that, though."
The Girl Scouts collected the frogs and another set stood up.
"Next we have bullfrogs, Rani castabana," she giggled, "I mean...Rana catesbeiana. Oh! My name is Ashley and I'm in Junior Troop 205. Bullfrogs spend most of their time in the water. We were very lucky these two were on land where we could catch them. One is only a little over two inches, but the other is over four inches. These are much bigger than the other frogs. They're not the biggest bullfrogs. Bullfrogs can grow as large as eight inches! You have to hold it gently because it doesn't have any ribs to protect its organs. Right behind its eyes, you can feel the soft spot that is its eardrum. We have one male and one female. The male eardrum is larger than its eyes, so we can tell it's a male."
After the bullfrogs were duly examined and put away, the next group stood. Gary started to think that this was never going to end. He wondered uncharitably why it couldn't be one of the Girl Scouts who fell into the dolphin tank.
"My name is Felicia and I am here from Junior Troop 1996. Last, we have the Pickerel Frog, Rana palustris. It can be up to three inches long, and our individual is over two inches. It is light brown with dark brown spots all along its body. You can feel the ridges down both sides of its back. The ridges are a lighter color, almost yellow."
The first boy nearly dropped the frog, then exclaimed, "Hey! The feet are sticky. Not, like, sticky like glue or sugar or bug feet, but...sticky. Sort of like Post-it notes!"
"oooh!" The next kid felt the toes closely, and demonstrated to the kid next to her.
While the kids were passing the frog around, the first Girl Scout stood up again.
"This is Maria again. Other species of frog and toad that are found in Northern Illinois include the Western Chorus Frog, the Northern Cricket Frog, the Green Frog, the Gray Tree Frog (there are two kinds!), the Northern Leopard Frog, and the al...eel...ell-"
"Elusive!" another girl stage-whispered.
"The elusive Wood Frog. That means they're hard to find," she said, looking oh so pleased with herself. Gary wanted to beat his head on the wall. "We looked but we never even heard one. There are a total of 22 species of frogs and toads in the state of Illinois. More of them live farther south, where it's warmer. And that's our presentation."
The Brookfield lady said, "Since you're moving from amphibians to marine animals after this, we have one more treat for you here at the Hamill Family Zoo today." Another docent brought out a plastic container. "You know how you noticed the sticky pads on the frog's feet? Well, we have an animal here that has actual suckers. Does anyone know what animals have suckers?"
Five of the children were leaning as close as they could to the tank. "It's moving all over!" one shouted.
"An elephant wouldn't fit in a tank, silly!"
"I'll give you a hint," the lady said, "It has eight legs."
The lady smiled. "You got it! An octopus is what we have here to show you. Everyone gather near the tank, and you'll get to shake hands with an octopus." The children gathered around. "The octopus is fairly reclusive in the wild, but they're very curious. Just reach out your hands if you want to touch it, and stay still, and it will reach for your hands with its tentacles. This octopus is named Peter-for Peter Parker from Spider-Man, and is still young. It's very sociable. Come on, hold out your hands. He's just wet and can't bite."
Marissa nudged him with her elbow. "Gary, aren't you going to try?"
"Oh, I'm just having fun watching the kids." He took a step back.
The children squealed and laughed as the octopus felt their hands and along their forearms.
"We can't miss this. I mean, when will we ever get a chance to touch an octopus again?"
"Well, I'm not so sure-"
But Marissa dragged him forward and soon Peter wrapped a tentacle around his finger and was tugging at one of Marissa's rings. She giggled and Gary removed his hand, shaking the liquid from it. He wondered what Cat would think of him smelling like salt water and octopus.
"Is there anyone who wanted to meet Peter who hasn't gotten to?" The Brookfield lady looked around. "All right, then. Everyone say goodbye to Peter!"
A chorus of "goodbye" and "bye, Peter" filled the room, and the Brookfield lady lowered him back into his tank, which the docents carried away.
"We have time for two questions if anyone has any," the lady announced.
Several hands shot into the air.
Marissa said, "If your hand is raised, please say your name aloud."
The names Shawna, Melynda, Cedric, and Jeffrey overlapped.
"Shawna, you go ahead and ask first," Marissa said.
"Are any of the frogs and toads we saw endangered?"
One of the Girl Scouts raised her hand and waved it. The Brookfield lady nodded to her.
"Hi. I'm Kayla. A different Kayla from Junior Troop 1228. We studied all the frog and toad species in the state, especially the ones we located. Many of them are at risk, but only a few are fully in the 'endangered' category. Even so, we'll be releasing these after our project is over." She sat down with a flourish. Gary found himself impressed despite himself. These girls couldn't be more than ten years old, and they'd done a great deal of work and research.
The boy called Cedric was talking. "There are snakes in Illinois too. Are there any poisonous ones?"
Gary leaned close to Marissa's ear. "Every Girl Scout in the room is waving her hand in the air," he murmured. Marissa covered a laugh with her hand and a slight cough. He pulled the paper out again and looked at his watch.
"-Jessica, from Junior Troop 1228," a perky girl was saying.
"Her," Gary thought. "She could fall in the dolphin tank. I'd be okay with that."
"Illinois has three of the four poisonous snakes found in North America: rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths or water moccasins."
Cedric called out, "What's the fourth kind?"
"Coral snakes. In the way-south," Jessica said confidently. "And only one of the poisonous snakes-the swamp rattler or Massasauga-is ever found near Chicago, and it's very rare here."
"All right," Marissa interrupted, "I'm sure several more of you have questions, but we have a show to get to. Everyone please thank our hosts and the Girl Scouts, push your chairs in, and join hands with your buddies."
Over a dozen voices rang out, "Thank you, Miss Ebony! Thank you, Girl Scouts!" Then there was a loud clatter of chairs and feet and the crowd moved toward them. The entire group split up in the men's and women's bathrooms then came out and got into a neat line along the side wall.
Marissa appeared beside him like by magic. "Can you bring up the back, Gary? Make sure no one wanders off?"
"Great. We have several adults, but an extra pair of eyes is always useful. Take this." She handed him the knotted end of a lightweight rope.
"What's it for?"
"Everyone holds on, and it keeps us all together." She grinned. "Reduces some of the 'herding cats' aspect of walking around with large groups of children."
She doled it out, handing each pair of children a knot until she was at the front. "All right, remember that after the dolphin show, when they say goodbye, we are going to sit back down and wait for a special extra show. What are we going to do at the end of the show?"
"Sit back down!" the kid shouted.
"That's right! Now, off we go! Don't forget to hold the door for those behind you!"
The line began to move and Gary watched, smiling and amazed, as the entire group moved forward, through the doors, turned right toward the fountain, and moved along the sidewalk at a comfortable pace. The group clearly didn't need him, and he wondered if Marissa was concerned about him wandering off. Being considered one of the children needing to be herded wasn't a very flattering thought.
Soon they arrived at the marine amphitheatre, where another docent, this one less perky in his disheveled polo shirt, guided them to their seats. Every third seat was occupied by a docent, mostly middle-aged docents who were gray enough that they looked to Gary like a grandparent club.
There was a huge splash. The audience cheered, and the docent nearest Gary said, "That was a 10-foot dolphin jumping straight up. It did a flip and dove back in, nose first."
The kids gasped at the next splash. "What did that one do?"
Gary smiled. The kids all glowed like it was Christmas morning. If one of them wasn't about to drown, this would be a great outing. He craned his neck, looking for Tahirih's brown curls. If he just kept an eye on her, everything should be fine. There were three girls with the same mop of curls, though. Someone waved, and he realized it was the mother from the Pace bus. He waved back, trying to smile, and the little boy waved enthusiastically. The grandmother's wave was about as enthusiastic as Gary's own. He kept scanning the group. Finally he spotted her, walking near the side of the tank, holding the hand of someone Gary had seen standing against the walls at the Hamill. His muscle were coiled to move and he kept an eye on them as they sat down. "Pink and purple," he muttered. "She's wearing pink and purple. That can't be easy to miss."
The speakers crackled and a voice echoed through the amphitheatre. "Good afternoon, everyone!"
"Welcome to Brookfield Zoo's Seven Seas! I'm Dr. Sonia Gomez, and I'm here to show you what our dolphins can do. When I was finishing my doctorate in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the University of California San Diego, I was lucky enough to do my final practicum here at Brookfield Zoo, and then be able to return last year as Head Marine Mammal Keeper and Trainer. This is Joseph Owusu, our intern from the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology. On the other side of the tank we have Tamarique Johnson, who is interning from my first alma mater, Hawai'i Pacific University."
The handlers waved at their cues, their hair and wetsuits glistening in the sun with moisture.
"And now, I'd like to introduce the real stars of our show: five bottlenose dolphins. We'll start with a dolphin who's been with us for fourteen years, everyone give a warm welcome to Tapeko!"
Gary heard the docent saying, "The dolphin jumped up higher than a ceiling and did a flip before diving in headfirst!"
The handlers introduced the dolphins one at a time to fantastic tricks, thunderous applause, gasps of delight, and occasionally shrieks as water splashed onto the audience.
Gary found himself drawn in, both to the show itself and the descriptions from the docents. He glanced at Tahirih after the dolphins jumped alone, and after a series of tandem jumps. She was on the edge of her seat after they did flips and spins, after they dove and flopped back into the water, after they beached themselves, let the handlers pet their tongues and examine their fins. By the time they flipped their tails up onto the deck, she was standing, and after they caught rings and nosed balls, he saw her clapping.
All the kids were grinning with what Gary could only describe as pure joy, including the family of kids from the bus and their mother and grandmother. He could hear Marissa's laughter even over that of the children. As the pod of dolphins rose up and walked on their tails across the water in unison, Gary rose to his feet and whistled appreciatively, applauding.
Dr. Gomez and her colleagues waved and the crowd began to filter out. The Lighthouse group sat back down, and Gary heard several kids say, "Sit back down," and heard Marissa reminding the children near her to stay put.
Gary glanced back at Tahirih and froze.
The seat was empty. He turned side to side, searching for brown curls above pink and purple. He jumped up, scanned the seating area, bent down, looked under the seats, and started to shout. "Tahirih! Tahirih!"
"Marissa, I don't see Tahirih! Has anyone seen Tahirih?"
"Ms. Clark? Ms. Clark, I think she went to the bathroom."
"Daniel, did anyone go with her?"
"The zoo lady who was telling us about the dolphins did."
"I'll go check," Gary said, already running down the steps. Three strides down the hallway and he pulled up short.
There she was, holding the hand of a gray-haired woman. Gary took several breaths before he spoke. "Hey, Tahirih, I hear you're excited about the dolphin show. The after-program is about to start."
She skipped forward, pulling the docent along. Gary followed them, heart still pounding. Before rounding the corner, he pulled the paper out of his pocket. Lighthouse field trip turns tragic when children fall in dolphin tank. "No. No!" He scanned the article and started running again.
"Children, I'm Mr. Owusu, and if you reach out, you can stroke Tapeko's tail." He guided one hand after another to their target. "And here are the fish we reward them with. First two hands... Okay, so what are your names?"
To the left, a bunch of kids were stroking another dolphin's tongue.
"Ms. Johnson! Can I pet its tongue too?"
From the tank, Dr. Gomez directed a dolphin to blow water out of its blowhole and children in both groups squealed with delight.
Gary ran toward the tank and peered down into the water.
"Sir! Sir, you have to step back. You are compromising our animals!"
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Gary held up his hands and backed up. "Marissa," he hissed. "Marissa, two of them are going to fall in. This time it's..." He pulled out the paper. "Langston and Gwendolynn. Do you know which group they're in?"
"All right kids, can you hear me?"
"Yes, Dr. Gomez," they called in unison.
"It's time to switch groups. Remember to walk, not run, on the wet deck. And lease stay with the adult volunteers as you move."
Gary watched and everything looked like it was in slow motion. As the groups passed each other, two of the kids collided. He lurched forward, grabbed a pantleg, and held tight. Then the pants were slipping off and he was grabbing for a hand, a head, hair, anything. It was only as he hauled the girl with dark braids onto the deck that he processed the splash he'd heard.
He was getting ready to dive in when a wave obscured his view of the bottom of the tank. Riding the wave was a dolphin, followed by Dr. Gomez hauling a child up by a belt. Gary reached down to get the child's arm and pulled him over the edge.
"Can you hear me?" Gary demanded.
The boy coughed.
"Are you Langston? Can you breathe?"
He nodded, coughed some more, then gasped, "The dolphin caught me."
Gary laughed. Marissa was on the ground next to him, laughing, wiping water out of the children's faces as they cried. The docents huddled near the other children, reassuring them over and over.
"So, everyone's okay?" Dr. Gomez called from the edge of the tank.
"Looks like it, yeah," Gary said.
One of the dolphins pushed itself up onto the deck and nosed toward the wet children.
"Hey, Langston, Gwendolynn, looks like someone else wants to make sure you're okay." Gary wet their hands on the dolphin's nose.
Langston leaned over and hugged it. "Thanks," he whispered.
Hours and several incident report forms later, Marissa and Gary waved as the last child's parent drove away.
"What does the paper say now?"
"Oh, it's a human interest piece about Chicago accessible activities for kids with disabilities, including a note that Brookfield Zoo offers modified programs."
Her grin filled her face. "That's great."
"All in all, a good day with the paper, I think." Gary breathed in the cool, damp, evening air.
"So, are you going my way, good-looking?" Marissa asked.
Gary laughed. "Probably so, but my 'ride' is a Pace bus."
Marissa shook her head. "You really have to get a car, Gar." She took his arm. "Can I get you a cab up to the green line?"
Gary smiled and put a hand over hers. "Can't really resist that offer, can I?" Marissa nudged his side and they laughed.
It was well over an hour before he walked into his apartment. Another long day and all he wanted was his bed.
"Oh. You. Thanks a lot." Gary put down food and Cat came forward, then let out a growl. "What's that about?"
Cat batted at his hand, then sniffed, then licked. *Mreow* Cat glared at Gary for a moment then maneuvered so he was able to eat with his rear end toward Gary.
Gary rolled his eyes. "It's your own fault, you know. You sent me to frog-and-octopus-and-dolphin central. If you didn't like- I'm arguing with a cat." He shook his head then glared at Cat. "I'm going to go take a shower now."
Cat glanced up at him and had the last word before returning to his food. *Mreow*